The Ribbon that Unwrapped Russia

My first ever published article, in Seoul Magazine:

Cancel your flight ticket: the road from Korea to Europe is now open

Written by Andrew Roper

Passing a tractor, Zabaikalsk

Trans-Siberian Highway

I pressed down on the accelerator to get some momentum for the long climb. It was nearly time to stop for the night, but we wanted to reach a gas station and café that someone, a hundred kilometers back at the last village we’d passed through, had said would be here up in the hills. We had hardly seen any traffic since then, and certainly no buildings or driveways—no signs at all that the massive countryside on either side of us wasn’t completely untouched. With the last of the twilight fading, we came upon a collection of long-distance trucks by the side of the road—one of them maneuvering into a space next to the others, their drivers walking up a path to the café a short way above. This was it, our destination for the day—an oasis in miles of wilderness, with silence all around, tiny beneath an enormous blanket of stars.

Brand new surface

This truck stop is only a couple of years old, while the road itself was properly surfaced just last spring. In fact, September 2010 saw the formal opening of this brand new highway where not even a dirt track existed a short while ago.
One long ribbon of asphalt now connects the Far East of Asia with Europe, and, without resorting to any kind of 4×4 or motorbike—and without having to squeeze onto the train or the plane along with the masses—it is now possible to drive from South Korea to Europe and the UK. All the way through Russia.
Many people have made this journey before: from Sokcho, they have caught the ferry to Vladivostok and driven around to Siberia, through the Central Asian countries, and into Europe. Surely the trip of a lifetime, it was an arduous journey that took months and required quite a bit of preparation.
Now, it is possible to make the return journey in a few weeks, and, by driving straight through Russia (a single country, currency, and visa) all the way to the Baltic States and the edge of the European Union, your preparation can be minimal. Go on. Do it. Take any old beaten-up third-hand car you see—it won’t break down, and the roads are new—and drive to the other side of the world.

Escaping Korea

Sunset on the Amur River

The Dong Chun Ferry sails 600km north to Vladivostok, your first European city after so much time, maybe, in East Asia, and a lively port with many sights in town and around the small peninsula on which it stands.
After Vladivostok, there’s a 700km highway running north through the Primorsky Region, a hill or two to the east of the Chinese border, to the biggest city in the Russian Far East, Khabarovsk. Here, you will find many of the region’s important museums and monuments scattered around a compact town center.
Just outside is a massive bridge crossing the Amur River. This is the official beginning of the Amur Highway, which doesn’t stop until you reach Chita 2,000km later. You will pass close to a couple of cities that are worth a visit: Birobidzan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Area, and Blagoveshchensk, a lively border town that sits across the Amur River from China. Situated 100km from the Trans-Siberian Railway, Blagoveshchensk doesn’t see too many visitors, unless they arrive in their own vehicles. We quickly made many friends there, and they encouraged us to contact the local media, convinced that people would be interested in our story. A few days later, our journey across Russia had been featured in the main regional newspaper and on two TV channels, culminating in a half-hour interview on one chat show. Eager as they were to learn about the world at large, few people seemed aware that there was now a good road stretching west to their own capital city thousands of kilometers away—many were puzzled at how we had made it so far.

The Amur Highway

Buryats

The Amur and Transbaikal regions used to be pretty much impassable by anything less than a caterpillar tracked vehicle, and those wishing to cross this area had to load their vehicle onto the Trans-Siberian Railway or have the will to overcome the untamed wilderness of mountains, rivers, and marshland.
From 2000, the foundations of a new road were laid, and for the first time regular traffic passed in both directions—generally imported Japanese cars moving westwards and European adventurers moving east on motorbikes or 4x4s. It was still a bumpy journey, with diversions around construction sites, fording rivers where bridges had yet to be built, but it was a solid track at last.
Finally, in September, the brand new, finished road was formally opened: over 2,000 km of pristine asphalt, and a journey that had taken a month just a decade before, when it was possible at all, was now a few days’ gentle drive through incredible scenery, enabling us to pause at picnic spots overlooking virgin taiga, camp by rivers flowing through wild terrain under star-bright nights, and consider the implications of where we were: north of China, Mongolia, south of the Siberian wastelands—in the middle of nowhere.

How are those English Nazis getting on?

Small settlements do exist in this area: villages of wooden houses that might contain a shop from which to buy necessities. Cut off for so long, they now have a lifeline passing close by but remain detached, remote, and more than a little spooky. It is intensely interesting to consider what the people here think of their situation and how the new road will transform their lives, although the impression we received was that, in their minds, little has changed since Soviet times. Many people couldn’t believe that we would voluntarily come to this forgotten region, a place traditionally associated with exile and punishment. One storekeeper asked us, in all seriousness, if we weren’t afraid of bandits and expressed amazement that we didn’t carry a gun, while others advised us not to park in a certain place because of “bad people.” They imagined the dysfunctional, unfriendly Russia of old, not realizing that their stories and urban legends are outdated and that many places in the West are much more dangerous. That is, except for one old woman, confident that she lived in the greatest country on Earth, who asked us, “Are the Nazis still in power in England?”

Buryats and cowboys

At Chita, you join up with the established road network that connects with Europe. After what could have been less than a week’s drive from South Korea, you have reached the Russian Federal Republic of Buryatia and the incredible, unique, and beautiful Lake Baikal—wonderful places to hang out and rest before heading on. Explore Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Buryats, or Irkutsk, the old cowboy city that many tourists make into their base for the Baikal area.
Now, you are pretty much halfway to Europe. Start out on another new highway, which is being built to replace the old road that crosses the Sayan Mountains west of Irkutsk, and go on to Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia—a journey of only a few days, but a change in longitude greater than the distance from Phnom Penh to Calcutta.
Every day, the dawn arrives later and later, while the sun sets earlier and earlier—unless, of course, you remember to change your watch as you pass through the time zones, east to west, to try and force consistency on the timing of the days. There is a kind of permanent state of minor jet lag to go with the slow-burning culture shock of this traveling experience—moving around the planet as surely as a Boeing 747 follows the curvature of the Earth.
From Novosibirsk, the middle of Siberia, there remains simply a long, gentle drive to the Ural Mountains that finally mark the edge of Europe.

More Info

Russian visas can easily be obtained in Seoul for around US$150—250 (through a visa support agency) by anyone with the right to remain in Korea for more than 90 days. Applying directly to the embassy in Jeong-dong may be cheaper; see the website of the Russian embassy in Seoul.

Sokcho-Vladivostok with Dong Chun Ferry: Around US$200 per person and US$500 for a large vehicle.
Three months’ auto insurance at the Russian border: US$120.
Fuel bill to Europe: Around US$1,400
Total: Less than US$3,000, shared between two people, before including day-to-day expenses.
Click here for some general advice about overland travel through Russia (dated but still the best).
For up-to-date advice and tips from the author, visit the earthcircuit website.

© Copyright 2011 — SEOUL Magazine. All Rights Reserved

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